Tuesday 4th June 2019 – A short break to join in with the celebrations, parades and other memorial activities which will be held throughout Normandy again this year. This year is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day allied landings on the beaches of Normandy which was the largest amphibious and airborne operation of the WW2 history and known as Operation Overlord. (although the Allied landings on the coast of Normandy were known as Operation Neptune)
Wednesday 6th June – Having crossed the Chanel in the early hours we have arrived in France already tired, we only have a 5 day ticket so could not leave earlier. We drive as far as Boulogne-sur-mer and get a few hours sleep. Feeling a little more human and having grabbed a quick bite to eat, we head off along the coast road towards Le Touquet (Paris Plage). Situated on the left before the town of Etaples there is the largest CWGC cemetery in France, final resting place of over 11,000 men and women from WW1.
The original Avenues of Le Touquet retain their former elegance with houses nestled among the pine trees, filled with character and memories of the good times when celebrities flew in and partied the nights away. The front of Le Touquet is in stark contrast to the quiet avenues, its concrete paved walkway along the beach is equipped with fairground rides, cafes and ice cream parlours ad concrete buildings have sprung up with modern apartments ready for today’s holidaymakers. At the marina there is an Aires (motor home stop) which offers lovely views, a restaurant and boat hire and the opportunity to empty waste water and fill up the fresh. (Cost this year is €16 for 24 hours).
We set off along the A16/E402 towards Le Havre. After a break in the “peage” we decide to taken the side roads and the scenic route the D 6015 takes us through quaint French villages such as Victor l’abbeye or Yerville and towns like Yvetot, with its stained glass window, the largest in Europe, in St Peter’s church or the town of Lillebonne with its first century amphitheater, past tumbledown old farms nestling among the vast green fields with small herds of cream coloured cows and calves, just so much more to see this way even though it does take longer.
At Le Havre we rejoin the motorway to cross the impressive Pont de Normandie which crosses the River Seine before it joins the sea. This large cable-stayed road bridge, opened in 1995, has a total length of 2,143.21 metres and links Le Havre to Honfleur in Normandy. There is parking available just before the payment booths and steps or a lift lead to a viewing platform and restaurant.(charge for cars €5.40 motor home €6.30).
The motorway travels down past the town of Liseux famous for its Basilica of St Theresa of Liseux. We make a few short stops along the way one at Ouistreham Riva-Bella and a quick visit inside the historical old church of Saint-Samson, whilst there there was a fly-past of WW2 planes which later deposited a large number of parachutists into the sky above a nearby town. At Douvres de la Delivrande we are too late to visit the inside of the Basilica Norte Dame de la Delivrande but the village is really pretty with a very unusual and almost Gaudi style chemist.
We continue towards Arramanches passing through some very pretty villages. On the way we stop at a Canadian War Cemetery at Beny-sur-Mer just as a group of kilt-clad veterans play the bagpipes following a memorial service while others light candles on each of the graves. Finally we arrive at Arramanches and there are already so many vehicles parked in any available space for tomorrow’s celebrations. We find a good spot (fingers crossed) for the night and get something to eat at long last. Reflecting on the events held in this region each year it is quite strange to think that through the horrors of the World Wars and the destruction they brought to this region it has now brought people of all nations to gather here to remember and celebrate together.
Thursday 7th June. Getting up and out early this morning we head down to the beach at Arromanches-les-Bains where the jeeps and other assorted military vehicles have been gathering since 06.30, at 07.26 a lone piper played on the beach to commemorate the time the first soldier came ashore. It is amazing just how many people have come here to remember and gather together for the memorial ceremonies. Late morning the vehicles leave the beach just before the tide is fully in.
It was on the beach of Arromanches that, during the Invasion of Normandy immediately after D-Day, the Allies established an artificial temporary harbour to allow the unloading of heavy equipment without waiting for the conquest of deep water ports such as Le Havre or Cherbourg. Although at the centre of the Gold Beach landing zone, Arromanches was spared the brunt of the fighting on D-Day. The British built huge floating concrete caissons which, after being towed from England, then had to be assembled to form walls and piers forming and defining the artificial port called the Mulberry harbour. These comprised pontoons linked to the land by floating roadways. One of these ports was assembled at Arromanches and even today sections of the Mulberry harbour still remain with huge concrete blocks sitting on the sand and more can be seen further out at sea.
This morning the Dutch have a ceremony with parades and band of soldiers playing. It is wonderful to see that there are still quite a number of WW2 veterans present here today. The whole of the town is jam packed full of people and soldiers from different countries and veterans enjoying the sunshine together. In the afternoon there are the British ceremonies with military bands playing in the town square which is followed by a fly past from the Battle of Britain Memorial flight followed by the Red Arrows. From the top of the hill overlooking the town there is the best view of all these proceedings. The 360 Museum here really is a must to visit at Arramanches and the memorials and information boards displayed here give visitors all they need to know about why this day is so special.
At 11.30 pm there is a wonderful firework display to finish off the day and from our place at the top of the hill we have a great view. The parking here has been very good with a large field set aside for motor homes as well as the parking next to the 360 museum and the municipal campsite at the town, there are also several car parks with ample parking for the large number of vehicles that have travelled here from all corners of the world.
Friday 7th June. After all the walking yesterday from early morning until after midnight we have a little lie in before making a move on to Bayeaux. Just past the cemetery is the Musee Memorial 1944 Bataille de Normandie, which was hosting British Memorial ceremonies and the car park was full, but luckily there is an Aires for Camping Cars next door ( free parking during the day and €4 from 17.00-0800) . A short walk along the main road brings us to the British War Cemetry of Bayeaux, the wreaths from yesterday’s ceremonies lying at the main memorial stones including one from Prince Charles decorated with a fleur-de-Lys.
From here it is 900 metres into the town centre and the large Cathedral of Bayeaux, also known as Cathedral of Our Lady of Bayeux, with its beautiful stained glass windows. The town has retained its lovely old fashioned French charm and is festooned with flags and pictures and 40’s music piped along the streets. Shop windows are adorned with drawings of soldiers and people from the 1940’s, flags hangs everywhere – French, British and American – and groups of school children are excitedly running around and being herded back together by their teachers. We stop at a cafe and sit quietly with a cup of coffee as all is a hive of activity around us and is is just so pleasant to sit and people-watch for a while. Leaving Bayeaux we head for our next stop at Grandcamp Masy and on route visit the German War Cemetery at La Cambe where there are 21,222 German soldiers buried. We arrive at Grandcamp Masy in a storm with pouring rain and strong winds but luckily find an Aires situated alongside the main road and only ten minutes walk from the town centre with electric and water (€10 per – 2019) and fall fast asleep being rocked by the wind.
Saturday 8th June. Overnight the wind has died down and eventually the grey clouds and rain fade away too and give way to blue skies and warm sunshine. Walking down into Grandcamp Maisy we come across the first military vehicles arriving for the grand parade this afternoon. The town is a typical French fishing port, very pretty and full,of charm. The parade of around 300 historical vehicles and the accompanying people all dressed in WW2 uniforms are cheered on by the crowds as they make their way through the town and along the seafront. Around the port there are several large tanks with children clambering over them and having their photos taken. Stalls are selling food and drink and a stage is set up in readiness for a musical show this evening which will be followed by fireworks at around 11pm tonight.
We decide to go a little further along the to Sainte-Mère- Église where there are also plenty of celebrations going on, we are trying to pack so much as we can into these few days away. The town and its people featured in the film ‘The Longest Day‘ which was about the invasion of Normandy on the 6th June 1944. The town was the first to be liberated when paratroopers from the allied forces parachuted into the town during the night. At Sainte-Mère- Église the town centre is packed, the square is full of stands cooking food and selling drinks, there are a lot of American servicemen and women here and there has been a special service to commemorate Eisenhower here today. There is a large stage ready for a show this evening in the towns main square. The church here has a dummy figure of a parachutist complete with parachute hanging from the steeple in memory of the soldier who this happened to in June 1944. This soldier was John Steele of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, he hung from the steeple for two hours before two German soldiers helped him down and he was taken prisoner. He made his escape after three days and was sent to a hospital in England and later rejoined his battalion to fight on. He survived the war and was awarded the Bronze Star medal for bravery and a Purple Heart medal for wounds in combat.
The whole town is very lively and things are still going strong as we leave and head back to Grandcamp Masy and the fireworks on our last night in Normandy. We are so lucky as we find a parking spot right on the front at the port and have a great view of the firework display which is absolutely amazing, such a lovely way to end our last full day here, just can’t believe how fast these five days have gone, or how much we have walked!!!
Note: On our way to Sainte-Mère- Église we passed the Normandy Victory Museum, this used to be called the Normandy Tank Museum which we had heard had closed down, sadly we did not have the time to stop and see what was there.
Sunday 9th June. Our last day has dawned and we are determined to make the most of it. Breakfast is al fresco in a lovely quiet and very clean parking place in the heart of the countryside with only birdsong for company. We drive on and come to Omaha Beach for a quick visit before heading to the American Military Cemetery which is situated overlooking the sea and honors American troops who died in Europe during World War 2. It is a huge Cemetery which contains the remains of 9,388 American military dead. Buried here are Theodore Roosevelt Jr, son of President Theodore Roosevelt, and his brother Quentin who was reburied next to him but died in the first World War. Also two of the Niland brothers, Preston and Robert, whose story inspired Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. The gardens are beautifully laid out and are extremely well looked after and at the center of the cemetery lies a multi-confessional chapel. Historical military planes fly low past and give a nod of respect towards the soldiers graves.
Moving on through the countryside but keeping to the coastal roads as much as possible we see various D Day Museums and Military encampments, everywhere are car parks overflowing. We make a quick stop at Arramanches again to pick up a couple of small gifts and then head of towards Bayeaux and then the motorway as time is slowly running out now and we are hoping to be able to stop for a meal before getting the ferry back to England.
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